Mark Zuckerberg made a surprise appearance at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on Monday, striding into an auditorium in his trademark grey t-shirt past rows of journalists all wearing Samsung virtual reality (VR) visors, oblivious to the presence of the wunderkind in their midst, obediently keeping their eyes covered until he was on the stage before them.
It’s certainly a powerful image, and one that highlights the challenge facing virtual reality today: whether to be a profoundly immersive technology that can isolate us completely from the world, or one that can bring us all closer together.
When Facebook bought Oculus VR, it did so on the basis of creating the next big social technology thing. But so far, using visors has proved to be a solitary experience, with wraparound sound and vision taking us to the bottom of the oceans, on a rollercoaster ride, or watching pornography.
Obviously, this is a big deal to people who like video games or watching stuff on screens. VR’s close relative, augmented reality (AR) offers the potential for many other uses, but so far, nobody has come up with a killer app that identifies a clear benefit.
So far, so good: VR visors are an interesting novelty that can be fun to use, and are generally available at a reasonable price (although Oculus has been criticized for making theirs too expensive) and with a fast-growing range of applications.
As a result, we’ll see these types of visor being used for many things: games, on trains and planes instead of screens, by the tourism and real estate sectors, to watch porn, or whatever. This first wave of applications is simply an extension of what we have traditionally watched on screens, this time a few millimeters from your eyeballs, and in response to the viewer’s head or hand movements, and with wraparound sound. Which isn’t to say that VR doesn’t have its critics, and who accuse the format of heightened escapism and a phenomenon that will isolate us further from the world.
We’ve heard these criticisms before, and generally speaking, such doubts are largely overcome once the technology picks up traction and people start using it en masse. I’m pretty certain that we’re going to see a lot more of VR in the coming months and years. Which is all well and good, except it’s not the whole story.
If Facebook is to realize its dream of moving from text to photos, to video, and now to immersive video it has to covert VR into a shared experience. This means putting our visors on not just to consume content when we’re alone, but doing so in the company, virtual or otherwise, of other people. Zuckerberg’s game of zero-gravity table tennis with Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo is significant because they are each seeing an avatar of the other, in the same way as playing sport on a Wii. The next step needs to be something much more impactful, for example, that the person I’m playing with really is that person, not an avatar, and that I’m able to interact with them.
Obviously, the problem with making that happen is that the person I am playing zero-gravity table tennis with is also wearing a visor, making it pretty difficult to see their face. There is no easy solution to this, but I don’t doubt that somebody is working on a solution as we speak.
Just about every major company is looking at VR right now, from the big beasts such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, and of course Facebook, down to any number of small startups developing software and hardware that will secure them a place in what promises to be the next big thing. As Neil S.W. Murray has suggested, it may well be that in a couple of years, the iconic image of Zuckerberg striding past those ranks of visored journalists in Barcelona will join that legendary photo of Martin Cooper, the inventor of cellular telephony, clutching a brick-sized DynaTAC.
Taking VR into the realm of the social networks requires much more work than creating avatars of ourselves, and Facebook knows it. The company has just created a Social VR team to work on taking the format to the next level. Some observers will see this as a good thing, while others will see it as another step toward a dystopian future… either way, VR is going to be around for a long time and is going to play a much bigger role in the future.
(En español, aquí)